CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas (NewsNation Now) — A delegation of White House officials and members of Congress visited a border facility Wednesday after the Biden administration received scrutiny over the lack of media access.
They visited the Office of Refugee Resettlement Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility, which primarily houses male migrant teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the office, said the facility can house approximately 950 children at a time. Currently, there are more than 750 children there.
More than 100 children currently in the facility tested positive for coronavirus and are being isolated. HHS added that no child will be released from the facility until they have two negative COVID-19 tests.
“Under normal circumstances, you could accept X number of children in a place like this. Currently, because of COVID, we’ve had to limit the number that can be brought into these types of facilities and also ensure that they’re safe and that the staff is safe in terms of social distancing and testing,” said Julissa Reynoso, assistant to the president and chief of staff to the first lady.
The delegation toured the intake facility, a medical clinic and a dining facility. The word “!!Bienvenidos!!” can be seen painted in block letters above the main building entrance.
The White House pool reporter on the trip noted about a dozen children playing soccer on the fields around the facility and speaking Spanish.
Children are given a duffle bag of clothes, shoes, underwear and a hygiene kit, according to HHS.
Five members of Congress joined the tour: Reps. Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY-13), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX-29), Norma Torres (D-CA-35) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28).
This is the first media visit inside a migrant care facility HHS has provided since the most recent border surge began. Photos released of cramped conditions at a facility in Donna, Texas, raised concerns over how the Biden administration has responded to the influx of children at the border.
Tuesday, two Texas Republicans toured the Dallas Convention Center and described seeing children sleeping “feet to toe” on crowded cots.
The White House also provided footage of two other facilities in Donna and El Paso to the media. It released a statement ahead of the visit citing their plans to create more access for the media.
“The Biden Administration is committed to transparency and will continue to work with agencies on creating avenues for media access and visibility at both Homeland Security and Health and Human Service facilities. Agencies will continue working to fulfill requests from Members of Congress for access to these facilities as well.”White House statement
The Biden administration has in recent weeks moved to open more than 10,000 new beds across the Southwest in convention centers and former oilfield camps. It notified Congress on Wednesday that it will open a new 3,000-person facility in San Antonio and a 1,400-person site at the San Diego convention center. HHS is also opening a second site in Carrizo Springs.
On Wednesday, President Biden also tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the border.
The Pentagon announced on Tuesday it had received an internal government request to house unaccompanied migrant children at two U.S. military facilities in Texas.
The request by HHS is the first under Biden’s administration and eyes Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Bliss, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told a news briefing. Kirby did not specify how many children might be housed at the bases.
“We have just received this request, so I don’t have much more detail than that. We’ll analyze it and evaluate it just like we would any other request for assistance,” Kirby said.
Kirby said he believed HHS was looking at using a vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio and vacant land at Fort Bliss. He did not explain how HHS would use vacant land.
The U.S. is exhausting capacity almost as quickly as it can add it. A week after opening, the convention center in downtown Dallas is at nearly 2,000 teenagers, just shy of its 2,300-bed capacity. Experts on child welfare say HHS must release children more quickly, particularly the estimated 40% of children in custody who have a parent in the U.S. ready to take them.
Located at a converted “man camp” for oilfield workers, the Carrizo Springs site first opened to migrant teenagers briefly in 2019 during the last sharp rise in border crossings. The Biden administration re-opened it in February. It has long, narrow dormitories and classrooms set up in trailers, with a large tent that serves as a dining hall.
4 kids are housed in each bedroom. During the tour, an empty bedroom was showcased.
An HHS official asked about overcrowding at the facility said that it was partially due to COVID-19 restrictions and an overall slashing of HHS resources by the Trump administration.
“When we came in the previous administration had not put in place the protocols for covid or also planned for bed space. And so we moved as quickly as possible to get this facility up and running in addition to other facilities that are going online right now,” said Special Assistant to the President for Immigration for the Domestic Policy Council, Tyler Moran.
There are approximately 1,100 staff members with 180 of them being doctors and nurses.
A typical schedule according to administration officials includes a 7 A.M. breakfast, six hours of schooling, and lights out around 10:30pm.
The facility officials noted that kids are allowed outside multiple times a day including playing soccer during the day and at night since the field is lit.
Kids were seen with colorful knit hats they made and others doing physical education classes.
Since Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the U.S. has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials. There were 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children encountered in February — an increase of 168% and 63%, respectively, from the month before, according to the Pew Research Center. That creates an enormous logistical challenge because children, in particular, require higher standards of care and coordination across agencies.
Among the reasons for the increase: thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting Northern Triangle countries.
Still, the encounters of both unaccompanied minors and families are lower than they were at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.